Skip to content

The Highest Reason is Always the Truest: Emerson's Method

5 min

How to "kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections."

Cotopaxi, Frederic Edwin Church (1862)

According to Ralph Waldo Emerson in his first book Nature, everyone enjoys equal access to a kingdom as great as Adam’s or Caesar’s.

The problem is that most people can't see their own vast kingdom.

To truly see nature and enjoy its riches, to claim this throne available to all men, it is necessary to calibrate one's inner and outer senses. Most people today have lost this calibration, but why? What happened?

For Emerson, it’s all about the depth of one’s thought and the strength of one’s will. The deepest meaning and the real value of nature only shines through when it combines with human will.

Though it’s not obvious in Emerson’s fragmented and freewheeling essay, one reason that man has abdicated his natural kingdom is that his will has become impoverished. Emerson seems to take aim especially at the stultifying implications of the modern scientific worldview.

“It is not so pertinent to man to know all the individuals of the animal kingdom, as it is to know whence and whereto is this tyrannizing unity in his constitution, which evermore separates and classifies things, endeavoring to reduce the most diverse to one form.”

Emerson exhorts us to apply the spirit of scientific questioning to the spirit of scientific questioning: Why, and to what end, do we catalog and standardize the data of nature into a calculable grid?

A consistent student of science must seek to answer this question in his scientific investigations, and yet we have yet to learn of a satisfactory answer. One may answer that the purpose is to improve the material well-being of the species—a sensible answer. But not an ultimately satisfactory answer, because it begs the question of what defines the well in well-being.

We may wish to make the reasonable assumption that increasing economic output is good, other things equal, but philosophy does not permit us to naively assert that such is our ultimate end. What ought to be our highest purpose, our ultimate end? Modern scientific culture cannot even pose the question (which is not amenable to hypothesis testing) let alone answer the question. Instead, it sneaks an assumed answer through the back door, never justifying it scientifically, but only kicking the can down the road and buying time with ever greater shipments of bread and roses.

A perverse side-effect of science’s reign is that it crowds out our very ability to perceive and appreciate that which exceeds the grid of scientific verification. Yet Nature as a whole—all of existence, and our human condition within it—exceeds the grid. Precisely what matters most, and our highest powers as human beings, are effectively exorcised from what we today consider legitimate inquiry!

Verwunschen, Alexander Rothaug (1870–1946)

Emerson wants to rectify this cognitive catastrophe by inverting the dominant ideology.

Whereas the sophisticated bourgeois believes science is the highest form of reason and ambiguous “spiritual” philosophizing is pedestrian, Emerson reminds us that the highest forms of knowledge are faint and dim precisely because they are the deepest:

“…the highest reason is always the truest. That which seems faintly possible, it is so refined, is often faint and dim because it is deepest seated in the mind among the eternal verities. Empirical science is apt to cloud the sight, and by the very knowledge of functions and processes to bereave the student of the manly contemplation of the whole.”

In coming to know the mechanistic relationships between parts, we lose the more important capacity to apprehend the Whole. It is interesting to note that such a bereavement is an emasculation. The modern scientific rationalist is not the manly conqueror of nature he often imagines himself to be, but rather the effeminate servant of a tyrannizing unity he is afraid to confront.

"There are far more excellent qualities in the student than preciseness and infallibility; that a guess is often more fruitful than an indisputable affirmation, and that a dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments.”

The solution, in Emerson’s mind, is to liberate one’s speculative and poetic capacities, to explore vigorously and observe recklessly, to express as fully as possible all the content of one’s mind. In short, Emerson valorizes the writer over the bureaucratic scientist. The imprecise guesses, fallible speculations, dreams… Emerson’s mission was to reinvigorate the independent American thinker’s confidence in these sources of insight.

ȘȈǤƝȘ 73: The Greatest Hazard of All
“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.” —Kierkegaard
I wrote something similar in ȘȈǤƝȘ 73, about why explaining and defending is often overrated: "If one is correct about a novel idea, in many contexts it is sufficient to assert the idea, publish the idea, place practical bets on the idea with your behavior and personal projects, and then just wait."

As one learns to see nature truly, it becomes a veritable kingdom, even if it’s only “a hundred acres of ploughed land” or “a scholar's garret.” As man is restored to the throne he once abdicated, abstract thought becomes aligned with physical work on the world. Even zoological aversions—“spiders, snakes, pests”—lose their frightful sheen. Emerson seems to believe that, in this way, the unity of the world itself is restored.

To truly see nature, from our current state of alienation, the key is to deepen one’s thought and strengthen one’s will—to think and write rather than standardize and confirm, to guess and dream and “kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections, to become one of those “speculative men esteemed unsound and frivolous.”

Thanks for reading Other Life, the newsletter dedicated to philosophical and technological sovereignty. If you received this from a friend, subscribe for yourself here.

We have some upcoming events you might be interested in.

Members enjoy free access to all events, exclusive content, and (optional) their own professionally hosted Urbit ship in the cloud.


Subscribe to receive the latest posts in your inbox.